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James Mickens is a CS researcher (“Galactic Viceroy of Research Magnificence”) who among other things writes wrote for the online version of Usenix’s magazine ;login: (called ;login: logout, published every other month). Here are some of his articles:

  1. [May 2013] The Saddest Moment
  2. [July 2013] Mobile Computing Research Is a Hornet’s Nest of Deception and Chicanery
  3. [September 2013] The Slow Winter
  4. [November 2013] The Night Watch
  5. [January 2014] This World of Ours
  6. [March 2014] To Wash It All Away

Reading these is an epiphany akin to one’s first encounter with Dave Barry or Airplane!

(Plug by Raymond Chen too.)

See also this video, where he answers questions like “What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?” (Answer: “The best piece of advice was probably ‘Stay out of jail’. That came from my dad.”)

Edit [2014-03-13]: Apparently the March 2014 column is his last for the magazine; updated post.

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Written by S

Wed, 2014-01-08 at 13:53:11

Wellerisms &c.

with 2 comments

[Originally posted to paronomasia/pun-ctilious.]

Charles Dickens at 24 was writing his first novel The Pickwick Papers, which was being published serially like all novels of the era. Sales were chugging along decently for the first three months, until the character Sam Weller was introduced. The career of Dickens would never be the same. The novel became a publishing phenomenon and from that moment on he was a star, and new instalments of Dickens’s novels were often more eagerly awaited than any Harry Potter book has been.

Among the characteristics that made Sam Weller so popular with the masses were his linguistic charms, one of them a form of quotation known as a Wellerism. This survives in American popular culture as the rather lame and narrow-in-scope “…that’s what she said” (or the British “…as the actress said to the bishop”), but turning to samples from Dickens himself:

“out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden.”

“How are you, ma’am?” said Mr. Weller. “Wery glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long ‘un, as the gen’l’m’n said to the fi’ pun’ note.”

“All good feelin’, sir—the wery best intentions, as the gen’l’m’n said ven he run away from his wife ‘cos she seemed unhappy with him,” replied Mr. Weller.

“There; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy’s head off, to cure him o’ squintin’.”

“Yes, but that ain’t all,” said Sam, […] “vich I call addin’ insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.”

“Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament,” interposed Mr. Weller, who had been peeping through the glass door;…

More examples not from Dickens, from Wikipedia and elsewhere:

“We’ll have to rehearse that,” as the undertaker said when the coffin fell out of the car.

“Simply remarkable,” said the teacher when asked her opinion about the new dry-erase board.

“Don’t move, I’ve got you covered”, as the wallpaper said to the wall.

‘It all comes back to me now’, said the Captain as he spat into the wind.

‘Eureka!’ said Archimedes to the skunk.

“Each moment makes thee dearer,” as the parsimonious tradesman said to his extravagant wife.

“Capital punishment,” as the boy said when the teacher seated him with the girls.

“I’ve been to see an old flame,” remarked the young man returning from Vesuvius.

“I hope I made myself clear,” as the water said when it passed through the filter.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” said the king as he trod on the jester’s toe.

“These are grave charges,” murmured the hopeless one, as he perused the bill for the burial of his mother-in-law.

“Notice the foot-note at the bottom of the page,” laughed the court fool, as the royal attendant’s shoes emitted a squeak.

“That’s my mission in life,” said the monk, as he pointed to his monastery.

“Oh, how blue I am,” mourned the poet, as his fountain pen spattered upon him.

“That’s an old gag,” said the cashier, as the bandit stopped up his mouth.

“My business is looking good,” said the model.

See also this post by Krish Ashok, which has a stream of examples culminating in

“Looks like we still have gaps”, he pointed out, like Aamer Sohail to Venkatesh Prasad.

A subgenre is the “Tom Swifty”, with a pun on the adverb:

“The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,” said Tom half-heartedly.

“The situation is grave,” Tom said cryptically.

“I’ve joined the navy,” Tom said fleetingly.

“I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank.

“This is the real male goose,” said Tom producing the propaganda.

“I won’t finish in fifth place,” Tom held forth.

[See the paronomasia archives for more Tom Swifties from its members, like

“Let’s put them in to bat now and bowl them out,” Tom declared.

and of course everywhere on the internet.]

Written by S

Sun, 2011-08-14 at 06:16:21

Posted in funny, language, quotes

The Book of Heroic Failures

with 4 comments

Stephen Pile’s The Book of Heroic Failures (first published 1979) must be one of the greatest books ever written. Too many books have been written in praise of competence; this book provides an antidote by celebrating failure as only a British author can. Starting with a declaration that “Success is overrated”, it proceeds to chronicle, lovingly, miscellaneous tales from the ages. There is no description I can write that would be a substitute for quoting from the book at length:

THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL ANIMAL RESCUE
The firemen’s strike of 1978 made possible one of the great animal rescue attempts of all time. Valiantly, the British Army had taken over emergency firefighting and on 14 January they were called out by an elderly lady in South London to retrieve her cat which had become trapped up a tree. They arrived with impressive haste and soon discharged their duty. So grateful was the lady that she invited them all in for tea. Driving off later, with fond farewells completed, they ran over the cat and killed it.

THE LEAST ACCURATELY LABELLED MUSEUM EXHIBIT
A first-class example of inaccurate labelling was discovered in October 1971 in County Durham. The object was exhibited in a South Shields museum as a Roman sestertius coin, minted between AD 135 and AD 138. However, Miss Fiona Gordon, aged 9, pointed out that it was, in fact, a plastic token given away free by a soft drinks firm in exchange for bottle labels. The dating was, in her view, almost 2,000 years out.
When challenged to provide evidence, she said: ‘I knew because the firm’s trademark was printed on the back.’
A spokesman for the Roman Fort museum said: ‘The token was designed as a Roman replica. The trouble was that we construed the letter “R” on the coin to mean “Roma”. In fact it stood for “Robinsons”, the soft drink manufacturers.’

THE MOST POINTLESS RADIO INTERVIEW
One of Britain’s most popular radio programmes is ‘Desert Island Discs’ in which a celebrity is asked to imagine that, for unspecified reasons, he is trapped on a desert island with his eight favourite records.
In the early 1970s the programme’s presenter, Roy Plomley was keen to get the novelist Alistair Maclean on to his programme. As a writer of adventure stories, it was felt he might fit the role of a castaway and give a gripping broadcast.
This was soon arranged, despite Maclean’s known reluctance to give interviews.
Mr Plomley arranged to meet him for lunch at the Savile Club in London. They got on extremely well.
During lunch Mr Plomley asked, ‘Which part of the year do you put aside for your writing?’
‘Writing?’ said Maclean.
‘Yes – your books – Guns of Navarone.
‘I’m not Alistair Maclean, the writer.’
‘No?’
‘No. I’m in charge of the Ontario Tourist Bureau.’
With no alternative, the two set off for the studio. During the recording an increasingly agitated producer urged: ‘Ask him about his books.’ ‘He hasn’t written any,’ replied the broadcaster.
The programme was never broadcast.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Mon, 2011-03-21 at 11:01:42

Posted in funny

Indian names

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When The New York Times carried a routine notice about a book in 1961, John Updike, then 29, was so impressed by the author’s name that he wrote a poem about it:

I Missed His Book, But I Read His Name

“The Silver Pilgrimage,” by M. Anantanarayanan. . . . 160 pages.
Criterion. $3.95.      —The Times

Though authors are a dreadful clan
To be avoided if you can,
I’d like to meet the Indian,
M. Anantanarayanan.

I picture him as short and tan.
We’d meet, perhaps, in Hindustan.
I’d say, with admirable élan,
“Ah, Anantanarayanan —

I’ve heard of you. The Times once ran
A notice on your novel, an
Unusual tale of God and Man.”
And Anantanarayanan

Would seat me on a lush divan
And read his name — that sumptuous span
Of ‘a’s and ‘n’s more lovely than
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan” —

Aloud to me all day. I plan
Henceforth to be an ardent fan
of Anantanarayanan —
M. Anantanarayanan.

(Also on Youtube)

Written by S

Mon, 2011-03-21 at 09:53:43

Posted in funny

Tagged with

The Karnataka soap opera

with 3 comments

A hilarious letter in Vijaya Karnataka, published about a month ago (Nov 30, I think… while Vishweshwar Bhat was still editor).

(Click for PDF)

Written by S

Wed, 2010-12-22 at 02:54:26

Posted in funny

Gajendra Moksha

with 8 comments

Photo by Johan Opperman, taken at Orpen Dam, Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Vishnu did not arrive in person, but the rest of the herd came and rescued the baby elephant.


Update [2012-08-31]: Found another version apparently at “the Luangwa River in the South Luangwa National Park” in Zambia, via here and here, etc. (Couldn’t get the above photo to not appear in this gallery; ignore that one.)

Written by S

Sun, 2010-11-14 at 13:03:08

Posted in funny

Randomness and reality

with 5 comments

We know the arXiv (pronounced “archive”) — it has scientific papers. The snarXiv is a hilarious parody, which randomly generates titles and abstracts that look like papers in high-energy physics. The generator is surprisingly sophisticated; you can play arXiv vs. snarXiv to see if you can distinguish fake titles from the real thing. I started off well but could manage only ≈70% accuracy after 30 guesses. (Although I don’t know anything about high-energy physics, I vaguely know a little mathematical terminology, and tried guessing based on heuristics like “this is too weird to be generated by the grammar” — and failed.) You can read his About page for details. (“Sug­gested Uses for the snarXiv: [..] If you’re a grad­u­ate stu­dent, gloomily read through the abstracts, think­ing to your­self that you don’t under­stand papers on the real arXiv any better. If you’re a post-doc, reload until you find some­thing to work on.”)

(via)

He also has a random theorem generator that generates “theorems” that look very real. (With typical proofs, too.) You may also remember SCIGEN, which generates random computer-science papers, including one that was accepted by a bogus conference. There’s also a brilliant Postmodernism generator (reload to get a new essay as good as “real”), and one for teenage poetry.

All this must remind some people of the Sokal affair, a brilliant hoax perpetrated by physics professor Alan Sokal who submitted a meaningless essay on science to the leading postmodern journal Social Text — it was accepted, demonstrating that they would “publish an article consisting of utter nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. There is a crucial difference — while the earlier examples quoted here (except possibly the postmodernism and poetry generators) show that non-experts cannot distinguish the real from the randomly generated, Sokal showed that the so-called “experts” in postmodernism aren’t very discriminating either.
His paper included such wonderful gems, hilarious nonsense to any mathematician and clearly far-fetched to even a non-mathematical reader, as:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ‘pro-choice’, so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

He also pleased the editors by claiming that Lacan’s gibberish was proved by quantum theory, and Derrida’s nonsense by general relativity. In fact the entire paper is essentially an exercise in “glueing together, without any logic, quotes from several famous French and American intellectuals who make quite ignorant statements about physics or mathematics, with, however, great self-confidence”.

You can read the Wikipedia article, or Martin Gardner’s essay Alan Sokal’s Hilarious Hoax, to see the kind of bullshit that passes for “scholarship” in post-modernism today. It does get hard to believe. Not only did Lacan (a leading name in postmodernism) famously and meaninglessly say, in the same essay:

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the square root of –1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (–1).

and also that “a torus … is exactly the structure of the neurotic”, but, when asked about it and given a way out with the suggestion that perhaps it was an analogy, he insisted:

This torus really exists and it is exactly the structure of the neurotic. It is not an analogon; it is not even an abstraction, because an abstraction is some sort of diminution of reality

and so on. (Even after all this was torn apart by Sokal and his coauthor in their later book Intellectual Impostures/Fashionable Nonsense, some postmodernists insist… Why, even after Sokal’s paper was revealed to be a hoax, the journal’s editors insisted that it didn’t matter at all; the paper was still “valuable” as a “symptomatic document”.)

Why does this all matter? If these people get off by pushing senseless words around, why not ignore them and let them have their fun? Well, that’s what we do in practice, but there are serious consequences beyond the fact that they are paid to spew garbage: “the problem is not only that a few individuals go out of their way when they talk about science, but that their cultural environment (commentators and journalists) tolerates and even encourages this sloppy way of thinking”, and one of their goals is to undermine science (not merely to highlight the social and cultural context), and deny that anything such as objective truth exists. [Sokal points out: “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor).”] The feminist “philosopher” Luce Irigaray believes, for example, that E=mc2 is sexist (her phrase: “sexed equation”). Why? Because the equation

privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather its having privileged what goes the fastest…

… Let her try replacing it with her preferred speeds? She also claims that the reason we have not been able to develop fluid mechanics as much as solid mechanics is because science is masculinist. You can read more such delightful (or infuriating) babble along with the authors’ observations in their book, or this review, or this review, or this review, etc.

So much for postmodern theories of science. There is, of course, no reason to believe that postmodernist theories elsewhere stand on any better foundation, beyond the fact that “postmodern” is mostly a meaningless word thrown around to let one get away with empty “discourses”. Although some of the reviews are written optimistically, with titles like “Farewell to a Fad”, it’s not clear that idiocy is going away. For a great post on “post-modern” literature, see Postmodernism and its discontents – a heretic speaks up!.


More examples in the comments below. [Note: If you got some garbled draft in your feed reader, sorry, it’s because of WordPress #@$#! access keys that steal Ctrl-P to mean “Publish”. To disable it I use a modification of this script, but it needs Greasemonkey.]

Written by S

Sat, 2010-06-19 at 23:59:58

Posted in funny